Thursday, February 21, 2013

FACT IS, WE WENT TO WAR, AND NOW THERE AIN'T NO GOING BACK. I MEAN, SHIT, IT'S WHAT WAR IS, YOU KNOW? ONCE YOU IN IT, YOU IN IT. IF IT'S A LIE, THEN WE FIGHT ON THAT LIE: In thinking about season five of The Wire, one can't help initially being impressed about how it all came together -- however bullshit the setups were between both McNulty's and Templeton's big lies, it was damn satisfying in the last 2 1/2 hours seeing how all the other characters reacted when they learned the truth, and the decisions it forced each to make.

But still, it didn't work.

This all has been said before, I'm sure. But it all comes back to what David Simon was so careful to build in the other four seasons which was lacking here: universal empathy. Whether it was the drug dealers or the politicians or the school administrators or high-ranking police even f'n Ziggy Sobotka, you at least understood why folks were making the stupid, short-sighted decisions which they were making, and season four went ever deeper to show us where the next generation of hoppers came from, and why the political culture kept producing more Carcettis. The leadership of the Baltimore Sun, however did not receive that same empathy or shading—they were budget-cutting, awards-chasing assholes more interested in a good story than the truth, and Gus Haynes and the non-Templeton reporters/editors were truth-seeking, grammar-stickling, under-resourced heroes with no selfish motivations whatsoever. And this may well be how David Simon interpreted his own newspaper experiences, but it made for bad television -- at least, television inferior to that of the first four seasons.

I accept what some of you were saying along the way about the implausibility of the McNulty scheme—just let it play out because there are consequences, and that it was hardly less plausible than Hamsterdam—but at least we understood that it was motivated by a combination of frustration, ego, and alcohol. We didn't get any of that from The Sun and, until Fletcher's street conversation with Bubbles in the finale, any real argument for why a better-run newspaper would've made a difference. And while I accept Simon's argument that the real story at The Sun was what wasn't being covered...
We know that they mayor is cooking the stats so he can become governor. We know that he's taking apart the Marlo task force. We know that he's backing No Child Left Behind, and hyping a dubious gain in the 3rd grade test scores though the schools remain an unmitigated disaster. We know that these politically charged prosecutions of Clay Davis are being undercut behind the scenes by a variety of conflicting interests, that there's turf wars that result in complete lapses of any anti-corruption effort. We know that Prop Joe is the biggest drug dealer in the city with the main connect, and when he's killed, it's a brief. We know who Omar is -- and, listen, you'd need a really good police reporter to write a story about Omar, but it could happen, but it certainly isn't going to happen at that paper.

The main theme is not the fabulist and what he is perpetrating. That's the overt plot. The main theme is that, with the exception of the bookends -- at the beginning, the excellent effort at adversarial journalism that begins the piece in episode one and the genuine piece of narrative journalism that concludes it, with Bubbles -- it's a newspaper that is so eviscerated, so worn, so devoid of veterans, so consumed by the wrong things, and so denied the ability to replenish itself that it singularly misses every single story in the season.
... I'm still left with a so what? Even if the newspaper covers all these things, aren't all the systemic barriers to reform still only going to lead to superficial responses, while The Game continues relatively unabated? In a city in which not even Cool Lester Smooth could suss out the existence of the New Day Co-Op, what good's a newspaper article really going to do?

Look: when you review the list of winners of and finalists for the Pultizer Prize for Public Service Journalism, you do indeed see success after success where newspaper stories did lead to systemic reforms and changed lives, but that's not a story which Simon tells within the confines of these 10 1/2 episodes. It would have taken more effort to show the difference between Templeton's journalism (including the expected-but-boring "let's see who attended O's opening day" stuff) and the impact that meaningful journalism can bring, but it's not an argument Simon makes sufficiently during the course of the season.  Is this expecting a lot from the show? Yes. But it's The Wire.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I agree with everything said here 110%.

    The David Simon quote here has always felt like a bit of a cop-out to me - the idea that the big story of what is going on with the newspaper is what isn't being shown.